5 Things I Learned While Looking for Jesus at the Detroit Institute of Arts

One of the best parts of my job with InterVarsity is my mandatory retreat day. Multiple times a year, I’m required to spend a workday praying, reading, reflecting, and sometimes (usually) even napping. Last week, partially to avoid napping away the majority of my retreat, I decided to spend my day of reflection in downtown Detroit. My self-imposed itinerary led me to a number of locations, but the bulk of the day was spent at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

When I was in college, one of my mentors (Sara Barton) introduced me to the practice of listening for God’s voice in the arts. Central to this practice is the idea that—just as God can speak to us through other people or Creation—God sometimes speaks to us through other people’s creations.

Sara’s method was pretty simple: walk around a museum until a particular piece of art arrests your attention. Then, spend as much time as you can with that one piece. Ask yourself why you’re drawn to it, what it communicates about God, God’s image in the artist, and God’s Spirit in yourself. Talk to God about the art and the emotions it elicits. Pray, journal, read Scripture—all in conversation with God within the context of piece of art you selected.

It’s a practice I always admired, but never really tried. So I decided to give it a whirl last week at the DIA.

I entered the museum with a bit of an agenda: I was looking to spend time with a portrait or statue of Jesus. I wanted to see Jesus through the eyes of someone else, preferably someone from a long time ago. And thus, my quest to find Jesus began.

  1. Jesus is everywhere
Image: DIA (click for more info)

Image: DIA (click for more info)

I quickly discovered that there are a lot of Jesuses (Jesi?) at the DIA. He’s easily the most popular guy in the building. There are a couple large areas specifically set aside for Christian art, chapel-esque rooms filled with crucifixes and baby Jesuses.

But the Son of God is not confined to his designated section. Jesus appears in every corner, in almost every era and genre represented in the museum. Ancient, Baroque, Renaissance, Modern. Italian, Spanish, American, Arab, Asian, African. The only place I couldn’t find a Jesus was among the Islamic art (Muslims rarely portray humans in art, and never holy religious figures).  I clearly had plenty of Jesuses to choose from. But none of them did it for me; none of them was my Jesus.

  1. Jesus isn’t looking so great
Image: DIA http://www.dia.org/object-info/28f29621-2c06-41aa-a249-cf0fdc462b0b.aspx?position=26

Image: DIA (click for more info)

Part of my problem with the art I encountered was that, more often than not, Jesus looked just awful. Wherever I turned, I found another bloody, emaciated, exhausted Savior. This makes sense when it comes to the crucifixes—and there were a lot of crucifixes. But Jesus often looked pretty messed up in the other scenes too. He seemed sickly at the Last Supper. He was hunched and limping as he faced opposition in Galilee. Quite a few times, he was straight-up dead; there were far more depictions of Jesus’ burial than I had expected.

Image: DIA (click for more info)

Image: DIA (click for more info)

There’s a place and purpose for images of Jesus as Suffering Servant, but it seems as if—as a whole—western Christianity is disproportionately obsessed with watching him die. And not just in subtle, nuanced fashion; when Jesus suffers at the DIA, he suffers big. Dramatic lighting highlights the agony on his overly expressive face.

Within their original context the hyperbole in these pieces may have made sense, the way stage makeup works to make far-off actors seem more intimate. But up close at the museum, many just struck me as grotesque and other-worldly. The over-the-top suffering of Jesus made him seem disconnected from the actual pain of the real world. This wasn’t the Jesus I was searching for.

  1. Jesus hardly ever rises from the dead
Image: DIA (click for more info)

Image: DIA (click for info)

The DIA’s Jesus art is dominated by nativity, crucifixion, and communion scenes; Christmas, Good Friday, and the Eucharist are well-represented. But our other big holiday, Easter, is almost entirely absent.

In the three hours I spent wandering the museum, I found at most 10 resurrected Jesuses—and that includes a couple baseball-card-sized etchings. These artists just don’t seem very interested in the risen Christ. A somber baby, a stressful dinner party, and a tortured martyr: these, according to this collection, are the central images of Christianity. The resurrection is more peripheral, like the fish and loaves or the sermon on the mountain.

What bothered me most, though, was how even back-from-the-dead Jesus looked pretty beat-up most the time. In more than one painting, he was still bleeding. His skin was deathly pale. His ribs were showing. He looked more like the walking dead than the risen Lord. It seemed as if, even on Easter, Western Christianity prefers to remember Jesus as he was. You know, dying.

  1. Jesus is rich, handsome, and increasingly Aryan
jesus

Image: DIA (click for more info)

Not every Jesus at the DIA looked miserable; in fact, only maybe half appeared to be in pain. The other half looked really, really good. When Jesus isn’t dying, he’s posing like a Greek god. (Or a Roman Emperor. Or a European King. Basically, whoever is the richest, most powerful figure in the artist’s cultural vocabulary.) He’s glowing like the sun, even during the darkest Gospel scenes. Sometimes, he’s literally plated in gold. And as history progresses, his skin and hair lighten, until he’s whiter and blonder than Justin Timberlake circa 1998.

Also, he’s surrounded by completely anachronistic characters. Spanish soldiers arrest him. British kings bring him gold, frankincense and myrrh. Jerusalem is filled with Italians and surrounded by the hills of Naples. Historical accuracy doesn’t seem to be the slightest concern in many of these paintings; the gospel story is local, regardless of where you live.

Image: DIA (click for info)

Image: DIA (click for info)

Which isn’t a bad thing, per se. The Bible is an ongoing story that we’re all invited into. Imagining Jesus in our own time and place can be a healthy way of realizing that Jesus is in fact alive and at work in our neighborhoods.

Still, something about these paintings made me cringe, even more than the Christs of Perpetual Suffering or Easter Zombie Jesus. In these pieces, Jesus dripped with wealth and power, specifically the exact same wealth and power held by the ruling class. He looked like he’d fit right in among the royal family or the wealthiest merchants—the very people who commissioned these paintings in the first place.

Image: DIA (Click here for info)

Image: DIA (Click for info)

I couldn’t shake the impression that throughout the ages, privileged folks had paid good money to have Jesus recreated in their own image. If Jesus looked just like them, worshipping Jesus wouldn’t feel much different than worshipping themselves.

  1. Rembrandt’s Jesus is entirely different
Image: DIA (click for more info)

Image: DIA (click for more info)

Hours passed. I still hadn’t found my Jesus. And I was running out of exhibits.

Then, I came across a small collection of paintings by the famous Dutch artist, Rembrandt. From across the room, I saw a large sign that read: Rembrandt’s Jesus. Maybe, I thought, this will be the Jesus I was looking for. However, the painting I found beside the sign was just like the rest: a blonde, exaggeratedly agonized Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. He was a combination of everything I’d grown tired of in my journey through the museum.

Then I read the sign. The painting I was looking at was not a Rembrandt. It was an example of the Christian art typical of Rembrandt’s contemporaries. Rembrandt’s Jesus was on the other side of the sign. And he was entirely different than the rest.

Rembrandt’s Jesus was olive-skinned and brown-haired. He didn’t glow, but he didn’t seem sickly either. His clothes were unremarkable. His expression was ambiguous and muted. He had “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”

If he hadn’t been labelled with a giant sign, I never would have recognized him.

Image: DIA (click for more info)

Image: DIA (click for more info)

Rembrandt’s Jesus looked very little like Rembrandt. Instead of using himself or a look-alike student as the model, he paid a Jewish man to stand in for Jesus. His model wasn’t even a Christian, let alone Dutch.

And by using a Jewish model, Rembrandt was able to offer a more accurate image of Jesus, unlike anything that existed in the museums and palaces of his contemporaries. By looking for Jesus in someone different, someone unfamiliar, he found him.

—–

And I had found him as well. This was the One I had been searching for. I stared into his compassionate eyes, waiting in silence, as if Jesus would begin speaking from within the frame. I’m not sure that he did, but if he said anything, it was this:

“I’m everywhere, but I’m not everything or everyone. If you look for me among the biggest, loudest moments of pain, you might miss me for the spectacle. If you look for me on the cross or in the tomb, you might not recognize my resurrection. If you look for me among the privileged and powerful—people who look like you—you might mistake yourself for me.

“But if you look into the eyes of the stranger—the person who looks nothing like you, the person you’d usually pass by without even noticing—I’ll meet you there.

“Seek, and you will find.”

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ISIS, Iraq, and Psalm 55

About a month ago, I mentioned the ongoing crisis in Iraq in a sermon on Psalm 55. At the time, it seemed as if the Christian community in the U.S. was entirely unaware of the situation in towns and cities such as Mosul, especially American churches outside my town (Dearborn has an unusually high population of Iraqi immigrants and other Arab-Americans, so this tragedy was felt earlier and more powerfully here than in the typical American town).

In the weeks following that sermon, this crisis has become a top story among many American Christians. I’m encouraged to see so many of my brothers and sisters identifying with the plight of Iraq’s Christian refugees. However, some of the language and rhetoric coming from my friends and relatives has left me deeply unsettled.

Rather than list my concerns and counterarguments here (I have nothing to say that hasn’t already been said better and louder by someone else), I thought I’d add to the conversation by offering of my own reflections on this situation in the light of Psalm 55. I’m not an expert on either Iraq or the Psalms—more informed readers can help me correct any inaccuracies below. But reading Psalm 55 alongside my neighbors and alongside the morning news has helped me identify with our brothers and sisters in Iraq; I hope some of you find it helpful as well.

——

(Since Psalm 55 is a lament psalm, I began my sermon by reviewing the differences between different genres of psalms and explaining the value of lament. I went on to say…)

Lament psalms can be surprisingly refreshing, especially in moments when the bright shiny psalms just don’t resonate, but they can also be really exhausting. And I’m not in the mood for exhausting. And I’m really not in the mood to exhaust you all. So all week, I’ve been wrestling with the question, “Can I just skip this one? Would anyone notice?”

This is a temptation I often face when I read through the psalms, to just skip ahead to a psalm that matches my mood and experience. Some psalms just don’t seem to have anything to do with me, especially psalms like the one we’re supposed to look at together this morning, Psalm 55. It’s all about violent enemies and wicked foes, and… well, just take a second to read this psalm for yourselves.

(It’s definitely worth pausing to read Psalm 55 by clicking here).

The situation this Psalm describes is an absolute mess, to put it lightly. And it’s the kind of mess with which I have virtually no experience. Violence in the city; threats and lies in the streets; terrors and death; malice and abuse; destructive forces promising war; attack and battles; horror and distress—this just isn’t me. It’s not my town, not my neighborhood. This psalm describes the situation in so many cities throughout the world and throughout history, but mine just isn’t one of them.

I don’t have enemies, at least not the kind depicted here. I mean, I’m sure there are people who don’t like me, but I wouldn’t call them bloodthirsty or violent; nobody’s waging a battle against me. I suppose I may have enemies in some geo-political sense—my country’s been at war as long as I’ve been an adult—but I’ve never felt any direct effect of that war. In fact, I had to Google “are we still at war?” just to make sure it was still going on; if I need a search engine to find out we’re at war, it’s safe to say whatever enemies we have aren’t having much of an impact on my life. This psalm isn’t about me, which makes it really hard to pray, let alone preach.

————-

My wife and I were sitting in our apartment last month, when we heard what sounded like Arabic coming from a loud speaker. My initial thought was that it was some sort of call to prayer, but the man’s voice didn’t have the usual melodic lilt to it. (Also, although we live in Dearborn, we don’t live near any major mosque or anything, and we’ve never heard anything like a call to prayer before, so I don’t know what I was thinking.) We were already planning on going for a walk, so we decided to head toward the sound of the voice.

A couple blocks down the road, we saw a parking lot blocked off by cop cars and police officers. In the middle of the parking lot was a small stage with a podium and a banner, surrounded by a few hundred Arab men and women, men on the right holding signs written in Arabic, women on the left wearing headscarves. People were chanting and waving flags I didn’t recognize, but this was clearly not a celebration. The tone of the crowd and the speaker on stage was decidedly unhappy.

And I knew that this was nothing to worry about, that any anxiety I was feeling was based on movies, video games, and cable news, not reality. But we still crossed over to the other side of the street—you know, just to be safe—and hurried past without slowing down.
It wasn’t until we got home that I was able to do a little googling and figured out what was going on. The gathering in the parking lot was a rally to pray and protest against the spread of ISIS, the terrorist organization that has been capturing cities in Syria and Iraq all summer. The crowd we had passed was made up Iraqi immigrants from all of Iraq’s religious communities; there were Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians.

Which makes sense, because violence in that part of the world affects everyone, Muslim and Christian.

The stories coming out of Iraqi churches and refugee camps are heartbreaking. A relatively small group of Islamic extremists have been sweeping through the country, gobbling up towns and executing opponents. When these terrorists attacked and captured Mosul—Iraq’s second largest city, and once the home of 1.2 million Christians—the last remaining Christians were forced to flee.

An Iraqi pastor in Bagdad described this situation in a recent letter he published. As I read this letter, I was struck by how similar it is in both tone and language to Psalm 55:

“Things are so bad now in Iraq, the worst they have ever been… We urgently need help and support. Please, please help us in this crisis.

ISIS, a group that does not even see Al Qaida as extreme enough, has moved into Mosul, which is Nineveh. It has totally taken control, destroyed all government departments. Allowed all prisoners out of the prisons. Killed countless numbers of people. There are bodies over the streets. The army and police have fled, so many of the military resources have been captured. Tankers, armed vehicles and even helicopters are now in the hands of ISIS.

The area is the heartland of the Christian community. Most of our people come from Nineveh and still see that as their home. It is there that they return to regularly… Now the Christian centre of Iraq has been totally ransacked. The tanks are moving into the Christian villages destroying them and causing total carnage. We are faced with total war.

People have fled in their hundreds of thousands to Kurdistan still in Iraq for safety. The Kurds have even closed the border, preventing entry of the masses. The crisis is so huge it is almost impossible to consider what is really happening…

We desperately need help so that we can help the Christians of this broken land just get through this new crisis. Please can you help us? We are desperate… To be honest I don’t know what to do…”

You can practically hear lines from Psalm 55 echoing in the background of this letter.

“Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest—I would flee far away and stay in the desert.”

“I am distraught at the voice of the enemy.”

“I see violence and strife in the city. Day and night they prowl about its walls; malice and abuse are within it.”

Psalm 55 may not be my psalm, but it is the psalm of Iraq right now. And it’s being prayed not just across the ocean, but also across the street. The protest down the block from my apartment stood as a stark reminder that the sorrow of Mosul is also the sorrow of my neighbor. I may have the option to hurry past the protest and past this psalm, but many of my neighbors don’t have the luxury of skipping on to another psalm. Their only options are to pray this prayer, or to quit praying altogether.

I think the fact that these kinds of psalms are scattered throughout the book, mixed right in there with the happy and tidy ones, points to something important. The existence and placement of these psalms remind us of our responsibility to join our brothers and sisters in praying this prayer. The luxury of skipping along to a song that feels more applicable or more comfortable is a false option. This is what it means to mourn with those who mourn. If this is the song of our neighbors, it must become our song as well.

—–

I finished my sermon by offering a couple warnings; I’ll wrap up this post the same way:

A challenge like this, as innocuous as it might seem, comes with a couple risks.

First, by praying for those within our body, we’ll inevitably find ourselves praying for those outside it as well. It’s impossible to pray for the thousands of Christian refugees in Iraq without also praying for the hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees alongside them. If we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we have no option but to pray for the whole earth.

Second, by joining in the prayers of our suffering neighbors, we’re likely to join in their suffering as well. It’s hard to explain why this even happens, but it does. When we pray for God to show up in the mess, he often invites us to come along with him.

So we might get tangled up in the pain of our neighbors. And we’ll find ourselves praying for people we don’t usually pray for. But what choice do we have? These folks are right here, in the middle of our neighborhood. These songs are right here, in the middle of our Bibles. We no longer have the option to hurry past them.

When My Students and My Professor Both Say the Same Thing, I Should Probably Pay Attention.

This afternoon, I read Luke 10:1-24 with a group of student leaders at HFCC. After we finished the reading, I sent them out to wander the campus observing whatever they could and asking “How does the story of Luke 10 overlap with this place/community today?”

Each student came back with a remarkably similar answer: announcing that “the Kingdom of God has come near” means starting by welcoming lonely students into new relationships. It means taking our headphones out. It means sitting at tables with people we don’t know. It means breaking the cultural/racial boundaries that keep our school so segregated.

Essentially, it means restoring relationships, welcoming people not only to ourselves, but also to each other. Only then does the message of God’s Kingdom make any sense at our school.

With these students’ observations still on my mind, I discovered this little sliver of brilliance in Mark Love’s most recent blog post:

“In Luke 10, Jesus sends out the 70 in pairs to every place he himself intends to go. He tells them to eat what is set before them, cure the sick who are there, and then say, the Kingdom of God has come near to you. I think this order is important. Eating and healing are ways of being with people that require openness, mutual vulnerability, and care. More than that, the result of such activity is that new human bonds of care and belonging are created. These are acts of hospitality, of giving and receiving. It makes sense in the light of these activities to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God. Apart from these realities, what could you possibly be pointing to when  you proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God?”

Henry Ford students and Dr. Love seem to agree: evangelism outside the context of hospitality simply misses the point. 

There’s much more I’d like to say about this, but right now Mark’s saying it so much better than I could. If you’re not already following his ongoing series about salvation, evangelism, and the Kingdom of God, now’s the time to jump in.

Luke 10

What Muslim Students Have Been Teaching Me About The Bible

Something’s happened this semester that I hadn’t anticipated: Muslim students have been consistently showing up to the Bible studies I help lead at HFCC. I’m not exactly sure why they’ve been coming (although, if I had a similar chance to get to know the Quran alongside an open Muslim community, I’d probably do the same thing), but I’ve loved having them in on our conversations.

When I’ve mentioned this surprising development to some of my Christian friends, I’ve been met mostly with encouragement. “What a great opportunity!” I’ve been told. “You must be so excited to teach them about the Bible!”

And of course, I’m always eager to introduce students to Jesus—I think he’s pretty great. But what’s excited me most isn’t the occasional moments when we’ve taught Muslims about the Bible; it’s been the consistent ways they’ve helped us Christians understand the gospel.

The world Jesus was born into overlaps so frequently with the cultural context of Muslim students; there are so many similarities between Islamic culture and first century Palestine. Despite not sharing our understanding of Jesus, Muslim students often get these stories better than I do.

Each time we get together, I’m surprised by the aspects of the story my Western eyes refused to see, cultural dynamics that are immediately apparent to an Iraqi immigrant. In ways that I never could, Muslim students get the scandal of the prodigal son longing for pig food, the local tensions between Jews and Samaritans, and (especially) the social and familial cost of leaving everything to follow Jesus.

Or, to use an example from yesterday morning, Muslim students really seem to grasp the depth of the controversy surrounding Jesus eating with tax-collectors. As one student explained as we read Luke 19, “It’d be shameful and sinful for me eat my lunch next to a bank manager, for instance. He makes his living by collecting interest from others and exploiting them. If I ate at the same table as him, my meal would become like dung.”

He continued, “So it makes sense that the whole town would have been shocked that Jesus was a guest at Zacchaeus’ house. No holy person would do that. He must have seen something in the tax collector that no one else saw.”

I can’t think of a better way to describe what is happening in this story. Jesus broke all social expectations because he saw something in Zacchaeus that no one else saw: the image of God, the potential for change, a future as a Son of Abraham. And it was through that scandalous act that Jesus brought salvation to Zacchaeus’ house.

And I can’t help thinking that it’s through the scandalous act of trying to welcome the perspectives of every student at our table—Christian or not—that Jesus is bringing salvation to every person in our small groups.

All of us.

Especially me. 

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The Typo that Changed the Way I’m Thinking About Lent

Every Sunday at church, we conclude our meeting with a different reading from the Bible, usually related to the morning’s sermon. This week, it was my turn to read this benediction.

The text that was assigned to me was Isaiah 58:1-2, 6

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them…
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?”

I skimmed through the passage as we sang our final song–it seemed like an odd selection for a closing blessing, especially since the sermon didn’t have anything to do with fasting or justice. (As it turns out, I had the wrong verses. I found out later that there had been a typo; I was supposed to read Isaiah 55, not 58.)

Of course, I didn’t know that at the time, and my moment had come to read the benediction. So, I walked to the front and mumbled some improvised introduction before reading the passage, “As we head into the season of Lent, let this be our mission and identity.” This comment was met with a number of politely bewildered smiles; we’re not the kind of church that formally observes Lent. I pushed through the awkwardness, read the passage, and we were done. Weird, but at least it was over.

Except, it’s not over. This passage has been haunting me all week.

Despite the throw-away nature of my comment about Lent, every time someone else has mentioned Lent this week, Isaiah 58 has reverberated in my mind.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice?”

Fasting requires justice. As unrelated as those two seem to me, they’re inextricably linked in this passage. And that has serious implications for Lent.

Lent, I’ve been told, is about identifying with the suffering of Christ, sacrificing comfort in order to be closer to God. But the suffering of Lent–at the least the way I’ve observed it in the past–has very little to do with the suffering of Christ. Jesus didn’t suffer for suffering’s sake, the way I do when I cut out my favorite hobbies or foods. Jesus suffered for the sake of others.

In particular, he suffered alongside and on behalf of the suffering. He poured himself out to bring freedom to the oppressed, sight to the blind, and good news to the poor. He endured pain for the sake of both solidarity and salvation–that those who mourn will have someone to mourn with them, and that their mourning will be turned into dancing.

So, to share in the suffering of Christ, we must share in the suffering of others. If we want to get closer to God this Lenten season, we must get closer to the brokenhearted, because God is close to the brokenhearted.

Anything else is just self-serving, self-righteous self-flagellation.

That said, I’m not sure what this looks like in practice, which is why I’m writing this post. I need ideas! What would it look like for us to spend Lent sharing in the suffering of others? What have you done in the past? What have you heard of others doing? What have you always wanted to do, but never had the courage/community to try?

Post your thoughts below!

lent photo

(Photo credit: wikimedia.org)

My church is full of heretics

Last week, something happened that had never happened before: people read my blog (a lot of people!).

Outside of a handful of gracious friends and family members, my blog had remained relatively unread for the past three years. But something about my most recent post apparently prompted a whole bunch of shares (I’m guessing it was the click-bait title), because I had over 16,000 readers check in over the course of three days.

One of the side effects of this surprise boost in readership was a sudden onslaught of feedback, mostly from complete strangers. The majority of comments were supportive and encouraging, but not everyone loved what I had to say. The criticism that came back varied, but the most prominent and intriguing rebuttal went like this:

“Choosing a church because they treat you like family seems unwise. Shouldn’t your choice of church be based on the accuracy of the church’s theology, not on the strength of their hospitality?”

Unlike some of the less articulate critiques of my post, these comments really made me think. Was my reason for joining my church foolish? After all, good churches aren’t the only communities capable of hospitable acts; cults, gangs, and Klans can be just as welcoming to those in need of a family. If any community, regardless of integrity, has a capacity for hospitality, what makes my reason for joining my church compelling?

To be honest, I’m not sure I picked the right church, nor am I sure I picked it for the right reason. The point of my post wasn’t to recommend a process for choosing a church, nor was it a sales pitch for the Church of Christ. I was just hoping to offer an honest depiction of the journey that led me into this particular family.

That said, my reason for joining the Church of Christ still doesn’t seem so bad to me.  In fact, I’m convinced that it’s the primary—if not best—reason people join a church.

While I understand the “choose the church with the right theology” argument, it simply doesn’t resonate with my experience. I’ve never met anyone for whom theology was the initial, central on-ramp to church (they probably exist; I’ve just never met them). Everyone I know—from first-time Christians to church kids choosing churches as adults—joined their church because someone in that church loved them. Grandma took them to mass before Christmas dinner. Their college roommates invited them to small group. The church across the street bought them groceries when they were most in need. Someone sometime extended the welcome of Jesus, even before they knew the family that was welcoming them.

“People must belong before they believe” has become a sort of catch phrase among church planters and evangelists as of late. This observation is descriptive, not prescriptive; it’s simply true that for almost everyone, belonging comes before believing. Hospitality precedes theology.

More significantly, choosing a church based on its theology seems impossible because—and this is the point that I’ve wasted 450 words trying to get to—no church contains a single, homogeneous theology. Each church family is filled with theologies; within every congregation exists a widely diverse collection of beliefs and opinions about God.   

Take my church for example. There are all sorts of views on God, church, the Bible, and society in my little congregation.  If we took enough time and asked enough questions, we’d discover that no two people in our family agreed entirely on every theological issue. Each of us is the only individual in our church who believes exactly what we believe.

Which means that we all must be wrong about something (or at least all but one of us). Each of us holds inaccurate/incomplete views of God and God’s people. We’re all heretics.

This doesn’t mean that theology doesn’t matter to my church, nor does it mean that we have no theological agreement; the vast majority of our family shares a number of central beliefs and values (one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one baptism, one God, etc.). There is an expectation that every committed member of our family confess these core beliefs, and rightly so.

However, no one could choose our church because our theology perfectly matches their own, because there is no such thing as my church’s theology (at least not in the intricate, systematic sense that most Christians have in mind when they ask about my “church’s theology”). If there was, whose beliefs would it be based on? The elders’? The ministers’? Each of the members of our church leadership team holds beliefs that are unique to them. Imposing a complex, monolithic theological system on our family would compromise the integrity of each individual and stifle the work of God’s Spirit in our community.

So instead, we choose unity over uniformity. We’re convinced that our diversity is a strength, that our disagreements over truths draw us closer to the Truth. In our plurality of theologies, we embrace a single hospitality, welcoming strangers—even those strangers within our own family—in the same way God welcomed us while we were still strangers.

Hospitality may precede theology, but the two are not mutually exclusive. The hospitality that welcomed me into this family is central to the identity of our Father. It’s deeply theological.

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Why I joined a Church of Christ (and why I might leave)

This summer, I joined Parkside Church of Christ as one of their ministers. Ever since, I’ve been consistently asked, “Why did you choose the Church of Christ?”

The question itself betrays an interesting/alarming reality currently at work in the Church of Christ. The two dominant narratives in the Church of Christ today seem to be “Everyone is leaving!” and “We must keep on keepin’ on.” As a transplant into this community, I fall outside those two narratives. I didn’t grow up in the Churches of Christ; I was raised in an Assembly of God church and a fundamentalist Baptist school (my dad used to call us Bapticostals). But somehow, I’ve found myself pastoring a Church of Christ, which seems to astonish more than a few people. In a church where leaving or staying seem to be the only two options, a newcomer—especially a young one—presents a fascinating anomaly.

So how did I end up here?

It wasn’t because I fell in love with the elegant simplicity of acapella worship music. It wasn’t because of the Church of Christ’s high view of baptism. It wasn’t because of this community’s deep love of the Bible, nor was it due to their weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, their commitment to intergenerational friendship, or their flat(ish) church hierarchy. I’ve definitely come to appreciate each of these things (in an evangelical culture saturated with cool, cool musicians leading a room full of people who look just like me in low-impact personal experiences, it’s surprisingly refreshing to sing stripped down songs and share an ancient meal with babies and old ladies). But I didn’t choose the C of C for any of these reasons.

I’m here because this is the family that welcomed me.

When I had pretty much given up on organized churches, it was a couple Church of Christ professors who taught me the value of the local church community.  When my parents split up, it was a handful of Church of Christ families who mentored me, nurtured me, and allowed me to heal. When I could no longer afford school, a stranger from a local Church of Christ paid part of my tuition. It was a Church of Christ that provided my first internship, and later, my first preaching gig. When I moved away to plant a campus ministry, the majority of my budget was raised by members of the Church of Christ.

I didn’t choose the Church of Christ because it’s the one true church, or even because I think it’s the best church. I chose it because it was the community that embodied the hospitality of God when I needed it most. “Chose” isn’t even the right word for how I wound up here; I ended up in this family the same way I ended up in my biological family—they just happened to be the people through whom I found life.   

That said, I’ve found this to be a fairly dysfunctional family. There’s a surprising undercurrent of gender inequality in many Churches of Christ; it’s a lot more fun to be a man in this family than a woman. There’s also often an ugly combination of legalism and nasty in-fighting. You won’t believe the things some churches split or “disfellowship” over. Likewise, I can’t help feeling like many members of the Church of Christ family care much more about what goes down in the building on Sunday morning than what happens out in the world throughout the week. This really isn’t my ideal church.

But it is my family. And as a family, I’ve come to expect brokenness that requires long-lasting grace; I’ve never met a family that didn’t need daily forgiveness. Grace is the thread woven into every sustained relationship—why should I expect my church experience to be any different? It’s not like I’ll ever find a church that gets it all right, a family with no hints of unhealth. I’ve been a part of enough congregations to know that the Churches of Christ don’t have a monopoly on dysfunction.

This doesn’t mean I’m content with the ugliness in my new church family. A number of my sisters and brothers across the country are being abused by this family and need to get out. Grace does not require toughing it out in an abusive situation, even when (especially when!) it comes to family.

But my situation is definitely not abusive. And yet, it’s not the healthiest family either. As a member of this family, I’ve been welcomed to the table, invited to effect healthy change. As certain as I am to bring my own brokenness into this family, I also have the opportunity to join in God’s healing my church.

So dysfunction won’t make me leave the Churches of Christ. However, I might leave if I’m ever convinced that this family has ceased to move. We can’t follow Jesus standing still. If our dysfunction ever becomes our identity—if our mission to maintain our peculiarities usurps God’s mission in the world—our body will die, cut off from our source of life.

But, as far as I can tell, that’s not a risk right now. There are so many glimpses of life, so many signs of motion in the Churches of Christ that I’m tempted to label movement as the norm, not the exception. The missional impulse of Mark Love, the patient compassion of Sara Barton, the prophetic imagination of the Woods, the unwavering trajectory of Rubel Shelly, the merciful insight of Richard Beck, the courageous storytelling of Naomi Walters, the persistent call for justice from Josh Graves, the commitment to embodied hospitality of Coleman Yoakum, the Christ-centered inclusivity of Rochester College, and especially the faithful love of Parkside all give me reason to stay put.

This is my family now. Thanks for having me.

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